billable hours
March 8, 2008 2:32 PM   Subscribe

Mefi lawyers, how efficiently do you bill? On a day where you have no non-billable obligations, what's your ratio of hours billed to hours in the office (including lunch)? I'm at about 80% on a really good day, and I'm not sure if I should be aiming to improve that.
posted by footnote to Work & Money (7 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
That depends entirely on the style of your office and where you are in your career. I am one of three name partners in a boutique litigation firm that I formed with two friends. We're eleven lawyers now, and everyone in the place comes from a big firm background. When I was a young associate at a big firm I essentially billed every minute of my time. If the partners wanted to cut time, they did it, but I billed everything. I would estimate something close to 90 or 95% on average. The reason was that I had a trial-heavy practice and many days, my entries consisted simply of "20 hours: Attention to trail." (In one admittedly anomalous year I billed over 3800 hours that way.)

But now, I spend well over a third of my time building business and doing other non-billable work related to making my firm succeed. Those aren't precisely "non-billable obligations" but they aren't billable either. The most "rainmaking" partner in the firm has suggested that I don't spend enough time on that. He'd like to see more business development even at the expense of my (very profitable) billables.

On the third hand, I dream of an 80% billable return from the young associates in my firm. That's pretty damn good. If you're doing serious work, it's hard to really crank your brain at full bore for more than 80% of a long day without taking an occasional break to surf or play Scrabulous or whatever. If you're doing mindless document review, it's even harder. I don't know where you are in your career, but assuming you're a young associate at a big firm, no one in the world is going to complain about 80% -- in fact they won't care at all as long as they are seeing enough hours at the end of the year.
posted by The Bellman at 3:37 PM on March 8, 2008

I've found that the amount of billing that I do is inversely proportional to the amount of anxiety regarding billing that I have. The more I did to get through that, the more efficient I was, occasionally billing very close to 100%, when I worked on a lot of different cases and took many phone calls.

The key is to have a plan and know what you are doing. Most of my problems stem from sitting around and wondering what my next step was. But if you have a well-fleshed out litigation plan and an outline of tasks, you will be far more efficient because anxiety regarding "what am I supposed to be doing" will be cutting down on the amount I do and the amount of procrastination I engage in.

Also, keep a worksheet of hours and have targets. Say you have a 2000 hour a year goal. Break that down by month and know what amount of work you have to do to hit your daily allocation. It also will reduce anxiety because you know what you need to do to make it work.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:58 PM on March 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I work for a non-profit law firm where I'm fortunate enough that we're only concerned about billing when it's for Equal Access to Justice Act fees. On a day where I'm just handing issues related to an EAJA case, I bill at about 70-75%. I think 80% is a good target.
posted by Dignan at 5:19 PM on March 8, 2008

"On a day where you have no non-billable obligations" ?? What magical hypothetical situation is that?

I am a senior associate in BigLaw and have consistently hit my 2,000 per year billable goal (and have had 2,100 years). There are days in the office when I'm lucky to have 1-2 billable hours -- think client development, speeches, practice group management, timesheets, billing, secretarial drama, and the usual watercooler talk. There are also days when I am in the office 9-6 and I manage to bill 7.5 hours, which is close to your average. (Although I'm not sure how many of those mythical 9-5 days I really have managed to pull off.)

You can't be a hermit and be a billing machine at 100% efficiency, although there are some situations (trial, closings) where that's going to be the norm. In many cases, some of the extra nonbillable work is a very good thing for your career -- but it is a burden that needs to be balanced against hitting billable targets. Damn those crafty law firm partners, extracting even more "work" out of us!

80% strikes me as a pretty good goal. I think it's unrealistic to expect every day at that percentage, although where you are in your career and what the office's billing culture is like will influence that.

I agree with Ironmouth regarding keeping track of goals. If your firm isn't providing you with a breakdown of where you are in relation to your goal, then you should calculate that yourself (and adjust your work habits accordingly).
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:18 PM on March 8, 2008

I am a young associate at a corporate law firm in Manhattan and my billable percentage is all over the place. When I have constant work, I usually hit somewhere between 75-85%. I think it is important to take breaks every now and again to let my mind relax. I find that if I take those 15 minute breaks, I spend the rest of my time more efficiently and produce a better work product. Luckily, my firm is one of the few big corporate firms that doesn't have official billable hour requirements, especially for junior associates (although mid-level and senior associates definitely are expected to bill a certain amount of hours per year, even if there is no "official" number).
posted by Falconetti at 10:19 PM on March 8, 2008

I've worked in large law firms for about eight years now. I think that you can improve from 80% if you want to, but a lot of lawyers are probably around as efficient or less efficient than you are, so don't feel like you are doing poorly right now.

I used to be closer to 70% efficiency and now I am probably around 90% or so. A couple of years ago, I got serious about things and made myself get much more organized and stay on task. A few things that I do now: I make myself take 5-10 minutes every hour to veg out. Maybe on Metafilter, maybe screwing around somewhere else, maybe talking to someone or going to get some coffee, whatever. That keeps me sane. Beyond that time, I don't screw around. The rest of the time, I watch the clock and try not to spend much time doing separate administrative non-billable work. I delegate everything I can that is not billable and use all the resources my firm has to handle tasks I can't bill for. I integrate billing, filing and administrative tasks into the other work that I do so that the time is billable. I don't feel comfortable billing a bunch of clients or any particular client for an hour spent filing e-mails or reviewing file folders, but if I do that as I go I am not going to generally "stop the clock" for a necessary administrative task that relates directly to a current matter while I am working on it. I file all e-mail as it comes in. I will mindlessly watch the stock market or screw around on the internet while I work, but I won't read stuff, I'll mark it for later and only really check on major news stories or send a quick personal e-mail. Most interesting things I find when I'm busy get batched for downtime. Also, I record time as I go 90% of the time; it makes me much more efficient and I realize when I am slacking off. Billing my own time and knowing exactly where I am for the month or the year keeps me much more serious about billing then just letting things go and being surprised when I get the report at the end of the month.

I also try to make what would otherwise be "down time" more productive than it could be. If I am on the train, or in a cab or waiting for something, I try to have something with me so that I can bill some time. I don't usually work weekends or evenings unless I have to because something big is going on, but I will always keep something with me at home or in my work bag that I can work on if I feel like it. Finally, I've made myself on each business day determine a task that is "I should have done this already and I have been putting it off" and one that is "I need to do this soon" and I do them. All the little things add up, and really plowing through stuff makes the time fly for me. I feel like I get way more done than a few years ago where I would lose hours in the internet every day.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 12:03 AM on March 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!
posted by footnote at 7:21 AM on March 9, 2008

« Older Good Sniping Software?   |   and sometimes one cook can spoil it by himself Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.